The British Library, London

The British Library, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week has been rather different to normal.  Foolishly, at 8am on Monday morning I was at Preston station in the hope of travelling to London, but the storm rather got  in the way.  Instead of arriving in London at 10, it was lunchtime when I got there, so I missed a few hours’ work in the British Library.  It was an interesting few days, anyway, looking at commonplace books and music manuscripts for my work.   I was back up north on Wednesday evening with a keen awareness of how much more time I need to spend in the BL.  Then on Friday I spoke at the History Lab North West workshop on interdisciplinarity, Beyond History.   I talked about the overlap of musicology and history in my work, especially about how sometimes the music of the ballads adds a whole extra layer of meaning to the texts.  It was nice to talk and sing  to a mixed audience rather than just historians.

My plan is to spend some time next week revitalising my journal article, then with a bit of look when I go back to the commonweal chapter after a couple of weeks’ break, it might be a bit easier to face.


You may  have noticed that there wasn’t a blog post on Friday evening.  Nor was there one the Friday before.  There reason was that I didn’t feel like it; I didn’t want to acknowledge in public that I’m still stuck in the bog, probably waist rather than ankle-deep now.  In fact, if truth be told, I just didn’t want to think about my work any more than I absolutely had to.  Not that it worked – I was thinking about it constantly anyway.


English: Looking over the bog

English: Looking over the bog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The chapter is not going well.  I’d go so far as to say that the chapter is doing something quite unusual:  it’s going backwards.  Having eventually managed to churn out around 6500 words, I then decided that what I’d done was a load of rubbish.  I haven’t hit the delete button, but you can be quite sure that no-one is ever going to see those 6500 words ever again.  I’m not at all happy with the way I approached the material, but I can’t see another way of attacking it.  I know it’s not right, but I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve spent this entire week wondering how to improve things and trying to think of an angle to take that will let me approach the common weal ballads, but I can’t come up with a solution.  As I have a supervision meeting this week, I have concentrated on writing about four manuscript miscellanies I’ve studied, really just to practice writing with clarity and simplicity rather than because I think it will be particularly useful for the thesis. Oh, and because I needed something to hand in to my supervisors on Monday.

English: Snowed trees Polski: Ośnieżone drzewa...

English: Snowed trees Polski: Ośnieżone drzewa w Dąbrówkach Breńskich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I distracted myself by working ridiculously long hours on the ballad database last weekend.  It’s going quite well, except that moving information from the spreadsheet to the database proved to be more of a challenge than I expected and has proved to be rather time consuming.  But it is considerably easier, already, to find the information I need.  There are long hours ahead of me working on that, I fear.  I am in the process of planning a trip to the British Library too.  So I think the main problem with my work is stress – I’m just snowed under.  The problem with the chapter was exacerbated by a realisation of just how much work I have to do in the next few weeks.  So there’s plenty to discuss at my next supervision meeting, not least of which is strategies to cope.

I’m stuck in a bog.  Or at least, that’s how my work feels.  It went overnight from ideas coming out of my ears to being trapped in icky-sticky mud that won’t release its grip on my feet and let me move.  I’m not sure how it happened.  One day everything was chugging along as normal and the next I hit problem after problem after problem.  The main one is to decide what counts as a ‘socially critical’ ballad.  Sometimes it’s obvious, for example when a ballad says that society isn’t what it used to be because nowadays there’s too much vice/greed/theft/murder etc.  But what about when it says that god doesn’t like the vice/greed/theft/murder?  Or when it doesn’t say anything at all about any kind of deity but just exhorts everyone to be nicer to one another?  Or when it is a ballad of personal repentance?  Do these ballads imply that society is not like that and therefore have another level of meaning that criticises society without ever having to mention its existence?

So suddenly I found my work stressful and difficult.  Cue a phone call to my supervisor and a chat over coffee.  Well, in my case, tea.  I have just absent-mindedly drunk some of my husband’s coffee and it reminded me why I don’t drink it.  I’m a tea drinker.  But that is procrastination and beside the point.  Or maybe it’s not.  Maybe it’s part and parcel of the way I’ve been feeling this week: that this problem is too big to deal with on my own.  Until I could deal with it another way, I catalogued the manuscript ballads on my giant spreadsheet.  This, however, led to another problem, in that I realised I would be a lot better off if I could search my 400 or so ballads to see how many were tagged, for example, ‘religious’, or perhaps contained the word ‘sheep’.  Now this would have been a whole lot easier if I’d thought about it 12 months ago, but  I didn’t, and I suppose that’s the nature of the work I’m doing.  It’s a lot easier to look back now and see how I could have approached several things better, but that’s not always helpful.  So I decided that I could put each ballad lyric into a database…  only I’m absolutely useless with databases and I find them completely counter-intuitive.  I’ve never had a lesson on them and I find the software totally user-unfriendly so I had no idea what I was doing.  By the time I’d spent an hour unsuccessfully trying to put together a database outline for my ballad lyrics, I was ready to throw the entire thesis down the toilet.  I restrained myself, but it was difficult.


Sheep (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Facebook came to the rescue.  My friend Steph responded to my anguished cries for help (more on that later) and offered to set up the file for me if I let her know what fields I needed.  So big thanks to her – I’m looking forward to receiving it.  The plan is that when I do, I will slowly start collecting together all the ballad lyrics in the database so that, hopefully, by Christmas, I’ll be able to pull out some statistics.  The other interesting thing that my anguished cries for help on Facebook brought to light was Evernote.  It seems a really useful way of keeping some of my ideas and research together in a much more searchable way than word documents themselves do.  And the fact that you can use an add-on to collect information from the internet is really helpful.  So I’m looking forward to the results that Evernote might produce over time.

The not-coffee tea chat helped.  I’ve now got a few ideas for ways to turn things around, so it will be interesting to see if I can apply any of them during the week.  After the supervision meeting, I met one of the staff from the John Rylands Library to discuss my work, which was a very thought provoking meeting.   It got me thinking from a librarian’s point of view about the nature of manuscript verse, which was surprisingly helpful with the ongoing question of ‘what is a ballad anyway?’  I’m giving this more consideration as I read through Victorian Songhunters.

I’ve spent most of this week writing my common weal chapter and despite my misgivings about how much I would get for it, I’ve actually written about 4200 words.  Last Sunday I spent the afternoon at my kitchen table, cutting 4 different versions of the same ballad into little pieces and sticking them back together in a different order.  It was incredibly tedious, but quite rewarding as it showed several interesting differences and several more interesting similarities.  It also gave me the way in to the chapter that I’d been missing.  So on Monday I brainstormed all the ideas I had and began going through each of my ballad examples in turn to look at the common themes within them.  Yesterday evening, having written quite a lot of ‘stream of thought’ prose, I sat down and thought about all the ideas I’d come up with and sorted them into some sort of order that resembled a plan for the chapter.  This morning I was able to re-jig the stream of thought into the order that I’d come up with and I felt a lot better about the whole thing.  I could then begin work improving the sentence structure and fleshing out the ideas.   Plenty still to do, but at least I now have a framework to hang it round and I know where to start on Monday morning!

What I have noticed this week is how thinking about one thing gives me ideas about what I need to put in to my other chapters when I refine them.  This is a really interesting stage to be at, if a little confusing.  It can be a bit hard to concentrate, for example, when I look through a secondary source that reminds me of something I could put into an earlier chapter – the temptation to abandon what I’m working on and start meddling with another chapter is strong.  To deal with it I’ve drawn up a chapter plan on a wall chart and when I think of something that needs to go into one of the chapters, I write it on a bookmark post-it note and stick it on the chart.  I am ridiculously self-satisfied with my solution to the problem.

This is the first time since I started back at work that I’ve really felt like I’m back at work.  I’ve begun work on my fifth chapter, ballads and the common weal.  But it’s been a funny sort of week.  I spent Monday with my head stuck in my source material, trying to find the links, sorting them into groups and writing a time line.  On Tuesday I went into the library in Manchester to read a book about John Payne Collier.  He’s turned out to be something of a pain in the neck, if I’m honest.  Not only did he have a habit of leaving out the provenance of the ballads he published in the mid-nineteenth century, he also had an irritating compulsion to forge things.  Even the transcriptions that aren’t of his own invention are, apparently, full of errors.  So at the moment, I am faced with a choice:  ignore everything he ever went near, or go back to the  original sources themselves if I can find them or get at them.  Not a particularly easy decision to make.  What’s more, the man was all over Victorian literary scholarship and those who were caught unawares innocently passed on his errors, so I have to be very careful indeed.

On Wednesday afternoon I went in to the university to pick up an inter-library loan.  I stayed for the history department’s public event, a conversation between Prof. Michael Wood and Tristram Hunt, MP.  It  was very interesting, but I’m not really sure it could be billed as Prof. Wood’s inaugural lecture, as it wasn’t my idea of a lecture.  Very enjoyable, though, and I’m very, very glad I went.

Yesterday and today I have spent working on my chapter.  I’ve got about 1200 words down on paper, although some of that is just notes of ideas, but I’m still quite pleased.  At least I have got a few ideas to work on this week, which I hadn’t last weekend.  I’m in a familiar, if rather uncomfortable, position where I have got several things rattling round in brain that I’d like to work on, but it’s Friday afternoon and now I’m on childcare duty so everything else has to wait until Monday.

I’ve also offered to present a paper at the North West Early Modern Seminar Series at Lancaster University in November, so I have to fit writing that into the next few weeks as well.


The results of my summer goals:
• Definition of ‘ballad’ for introduction. I’m part way through this, although it needs a LOT more work. I’m discussing it with friends that I met at the Psalm Culture conference in London in July and I’ve given it a lot of thought, but so far, there’s only a little bit on paper. This is my priority when the children go back to school before the university semester restarts. However, I did produce a short piece on the nature of the ballad for my panel meeting, so I can count that too.  I’ve decided that ‘definition’ might be a bit strong and that instead, working on what I understand to be a ballad is going to be an ongoing process.  I’m very pleased with the work I’ve done on this, because I accidentally ended up writing a bit of my introduction that I wasn’t intending to do at the moment.

• Transcription of digital copies of ballads from MSS in the British Library, consulted last autumn. Again, I’m part way through this. I’ve checked the whole of one manuscript and I’m about to start work on another. However, so that I can get my head round what I’ve completed and what I haven’t, I need to make some proper records.  Finished.  Quite pleased with myself, because a week and a half of nose-to-the-grindstone work on two computers at the same time yielded some quite spectacular production.

• Archive visits during summer 2013: Stonyhurst College, Lancashire County Record Office, National Archives etc. This hasn’t quite gone according to plan. Stonyhurst College assure me that they won’t have anything of interest. I haven’t yet made it to the county record office in Preston this summer, although I have been before. I need to go to the British Library again, but I’m not sure how I’m going to fit that in. I’m booked in to the Bodleian in Oxford and I’ve been to the University Archives in Cambridge and the Parker Library. I’d like to go to Keswick and Stratford too, but again, I’m not sure how I’m going to fit it in before the end of the summer.  I thoroughly enjoyed my trips to Cambridge and Oxford, but I never got to Keswick or Stratford or the British Library, so these are things that I will have to try to fit in during the autumn, perhaps at half term.

• Completion of article on ballad epitaph. Yippee – something I can say I’ve completed! This was sent off to a journal several weeks ago.

• Revise ballad flyting chapter. Bigger yippee – something else I can say I’ve completed, at least in its first draft.

• Knowingness, Implicitness and the Early Modern Audience. This is a new addition to the list, and what held up work on the transcriptions. I’m doing some background reading on the audience of cheap print in the period, which feeds in to a heavy-going (at least to write and for me to think about) piece on the use of knowingness in the sixteenth century. This will, eventually, form part of my introduction.  As done as it needs to be for now.  I will come back to it as part of my redrafting, of course.

• Rewrite of chapter plan – This piece of work was set at my panel meeting, as my chapter plan still reads as if I’m just starting my research. My supervisors suggested that I might find it helpful to rewrite my chapter plan to reflect the findings of the chapters I’ve completed. Actually, I found it a rather soul destroying business. I find writing abstracts extremely difficult at the best of times so writing several of them in one go was like torture. I have to admit that I gave up. I ought to come back to it, I suppose! I did finally manage to get that done.

• Submission of proposals for talks – I’ve submitted an abstract for the History Lab North West interdisciplinary conference ‘Beyond History’ in November looking at music as historical evidence – the links between psalms, ballads and politics and especially melodic knowingness. This conference was perfect for me, considering that my work is so interdisciplinary. I was asked to take part in the Material Histories seminar series at the John Rylands University Library next academic year, so I’ve submitted a paper on ‘William Elderton and the Ghost of the Ladie Marques’. That should be fun. I hope that both these papers will provide an opportunity to sing some of the ballads, since that is what they were written for! I’ve also now sent off a proposal for a seminar for the university postgrad seminar series on the Thomas Cromwell flyting, so I think I can safely tick this one off as complete.

Since I finished transcribing the manuscripts earlier this week, I had another look at the work I wrote for the introduction, made a few changes and thought about what else needs doing to it.  It needs revising in the light of the comments made by my music advisor at my summer panel meeting.  Then yesterday afternoon I started to think about my new chapter on ballads and the common weal.  It’s not going to be the most difficult chapter to write, because without a doubt that has to be the one on sixteenth century musical theory.  Nevertheless, it’s not as straightforward as some of the others because I think it’s going to be quite difficult to find an angle from which to approach it.  I think that a few days of immersing myself in the source material are in order. 

I went back to work on Wednesday, when my children went back to school.  Most of my work this week has been on transcriptions of manscripts from the British Library but I’ve also read some secondary material. I’ve carried on working today, because despite my intentions to spend three whole days immersed in my primary material, it didn’t quite happen – I ended up doing a favour for a friend over two lunchtimes instead.  Anyway, palaeography is a challenge which, for the most part, I quite enjoy.  I have to admit that I don’t do enough of it to be fluent at it, but once I get going I find a lot of it reasonably straightforward, if a little slow.  That is, until I reach the point where I can’t make out a word, at which point I feel like throwing the computer through the window.

On Thursday, my work was pleasantly interrupted by a trip to Preston FM to talk about the Historical Association.  I was very nervous that morning, but when it came to the broadcast I surprised myself by quite enjoying it.   I must say thank you to the station for inviting me and to presenter Hughie Parr for creating such a relaxed atmosphere that we talked for twenty minutes!